Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories
六書: What is it? Today we will look at how etymology of kanji are categorized. That is, there are 6 ways the ancient Chinese used to explain how each kanji is put together.
Kotoba zamurai articles are written to be a non-systematic approach to
learning unusual, but useful words. While these not-so-serious articles
are written with the upper-beginner to intermediate in mind, even beginners
should be able to get something out of them. If not, I may have wasted 15 minutes
of your life… I will leave it up to you to take the chance.
Volume 4: Kanji Form Categories
六書: What is it? Today we will look at how etymology of kanji are categorized.
That is, there are 6 ways the ancient Chinese used to explain how each kanji
is put together. Some kanji may have more than one way. These 6 categories are
called 六書 pronounced りくしょ (not ろく)
Why am I reading this? Well, probably because you have nothing better
to do. But other than the obvious, knowing what these are can be very helpful
when using a Japanese kanji dictionary since it will probably explain the kanji’s
Kanji that look like (or originally was supposed to look like) the object it represents
日 sun – originally somewhat round with a dot in the middle – not sure what the dot was for (if you know please post a comment below)
月 moon, month
山 mountain – a mountain ridge
木 tree – a tree with low hanging branches
人 person – a person with no arms doing a split
子 child – a child needs a hug
These are kanji whose meaning is somewhat abstract and is expressed as a kind of code.
上 up, above – the small line is above ground level
天 heaven – the biggest line is above the man on earth
本 book – made from a tree (木)
This is where 2 characters are put together to create a new meaning.
比 ratio, compare – two people(人)
看 watch, care for – hand (手) and (目)
峠 (mountain) pass – 山 (mountain), 上 (up) and 下 (down). This is a 和製漢字, for more click here
These are kanji with 2 parts usually one for the pronunciation and one for the meaning.
河 river – sound: 可 (permission) + meaning 水 (water – the three strokes on the left)
問 ask – sound: 門 (gate) + meaning: 口 (mouth)
枯 wither (as in a plant) – sound 古 (old) + meaning 木 (tree) & 古 (old)
These are kanji that have the original meanings changed (転) to new meanings.
The common example (at least in dictionaries that I consulted!) is the 楽 in 音楽 (music) originally only dealt with music, but since listening to music is pleasurable, 楽 also took on that meaning -> 楽しい
These are kanji where the meaning is totally ignored. They are borrowed only for their sound.
This can also be called 当て字, ateji – which are kanji used usually for the pronunciation (but can rarely also have meaning like 倶楽部 for Club [together+fun+group = ku ra bu])
Examples of foreign words:
亜米利加 あめりか – America
亜細亜 アジア – Asia
Examples where a new meaning developed
「来」 kuru/rai (to come) originally meant “barley.”The pronunciation 「らい」 was kept but the meaning was dropped and replaced with “to come”
*In both cases, the original meaning of each kanji is ignored and only the sound is used. With 転注 ten chuu, the original meaning is changed not totally ignored.
Note: I believe I have a handle on these last two forms (転注・仮借) but
I should consult a few big kanji dictionaries to make sure.
If you see something wrong or have anything to add, please leave a comment!
Is this site helping your Japanese? Do you have a spare $1 to help Clay pay the bills?